MONEY Retirement

Don’t Save for College If It Means Wrecking Your Retirement

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Mark Poprocki—Mark Poprocki

When you short-change retirement savings to pay for the kids' college, they may end up paying way more than the price of tuition to support you in later life.

Making personal sacrifices for the good of your children is Parenting 101. But there are limits, and financial advisers roundly agree that your retirement security should not be on the table.

Still, parents short-change their retirement plans all the time, often to set aside money for Junior to go college. More than half of parents agree that this is a worthwhile trade-off, according to a T. Rowe Price survey last year. Digging into the reasons, the fund company followed up with new results this month. In part, researchers found:

  • Depleting savings is a habit. Parents say it is no big deal to steal from retirement savings. Some 58% have dipped into a retirement account at least once—most often to pay down debt, pay day-to-day living expenses, or tide the family over during a period of underemployment.
  • Many plan to work forever. About half of parents say they are destined to work as long as they are physically able—so why bother saving? Among those who plan to retire, about half say they would be willing to delay their plans or get a part-time job in order to pay for college for their kids.
  • Student debt scares them. More than half of parents say spending retirement money is preferable to their kids graduating with student debt and starting life in a hole. They speak from experience. Just under half of parents say they left college with student debt and it has hurt their finances.

We love our kids, and the past seven years have been especially tough on young adults trying to launch. So we shield them from some of life’s financial horrors, indulging them when they ask for support or boomerang home—to the point that we have created a whole new life phase called emerging adulthood.

Yet you may not be doing the kids any favors when you rob from your future self to keep them from piling up student loans today. Paying for college when you should be paying for your retirement increases the likelihood that they will end up paying for you in old age, and that is no bargain. They may have to sacrifice career opportunities or income in order to be near you. You’ll go into assisted living before you become a burden on the kids? Fine. At $77,380 per person per year for long-term care, it could take a lot more resources than the cost of borrowing for tuition.

It sounds cold to put yourself first. But the reality is that your kids can borrow to go to school; you cannot borrow to retire. So get rid of the guilt. Some 63% of parents feel guilty that they cannot fully pay for college and 58% feel like a failure, T. Rowe Price found. Nonsense. Paying for college for the kids is great if it does not derail your savings plan. But if it does that burden must become theirs. That’s Parenting 101, rightly understood.

Read next: Don’t Be Too Generous With College Money: One Financial Adviser’s Story

MONEY investing strategy

Most Americans Fail This Simple 3-Question Financial Quiz. Can You Pass It?

piggy bank with question marks on it
Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

These questions stump most Americans with college degrees.

Following are three questions. If you’ve been around the financial block a few times, you’ll probably find all of them easy to answer. Most Americans didn’t get them right, though, reflecting poor financial literacy. That’s a shame — because, unsurprisingly, the more you know about financial matters and money management, the better you can do at saving and investing, and the more comfortable your retirement will probably be.

Here are the questions — see if you know the answers.

  1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow? (A) More than $102. (B) Exactly $102. (C) Less than $102.
  2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After one year, how much would you be able to buy with the money in this account? (A) More than today. (B) Exactly the same. (C) Less than today.
  3. Please tell me whether this statement is true or false: Buying a single company’s stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.

Did you get them all right? In case you’re not sure, the answers are, respectively, A, C, and False.

Surprising numbers

The questions originated about a decade ago, with Wharton business school professor and executive director of the Pension Research Council Olivia Mitchell, and George Washington School of Business professor and academic director of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center Annamaria Lusardi. In a quest to learn more about wealth inequality, they’ve been asking Americans and others these questions for years, while studying how the results correlate with factors such as retirement savings. The questions are designed to shed light on whether various populations “have the fundamental knowledge of finance needed to function as effective economic decision makers.”

They first surveyed Americans aged 50 and older and found that only half of them answered the first two questions correctly. Only a third got all three right. As they asked the same questions of the broader American population and people outside the U.S., too, the results were generally similar: “[W]e found widespread financial illiteracy even in relatively rich countries with well-developed financial markets such as Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Japan, Italy, France, Australia and New Zealand. Performance was markedly worse in Russia and Romania.”

If you think that better-educated folks would do well on the quiz, you’d be wrong. They do better, but even among Americans with college degrees, the majority (55.7%) didn’t get all three questions right (versus 81% for those with high school degrees). What Mitchell and Lusardi found was that those most likely to do well on the quiz were those who are affluent. They attribute a full third of America’s wealth inequality to “the financial-knowledge gap separating the well-to-do and the less so.”

This is consistent with other research, such as that of University of Massachusetts graduate student Joosuk Sebastian Chae, whose research has found that those with higher-than-average wealth accumulation exhibit advanced financial literacy levels.

The importance of financial literacy

This is all important stuff, because those who don’t understand basic financial concepts, such as how money grows, how inflation affects us, and how diversification can reduce risk, are likely to make suboptimal financial decisions throughout their lives, ending up with poorer results as they approach and enter retirement. Consider the inflation issue, for example: If you don’t appreciate how inflation shrinks the value of money over time, you might be thinking that your expected income stream in retirement, from Social Security and/or a pension, will be enough to live on. Factoring in inflation, though, you might understand that your expected $30,000 per year could have the purchasing power of only $14,000 in 25 years.

Mitchell and Lusardi note that financial knowledge is correlated with better results: “Our analysis of financial knowledge and investor performance showed that more knowledgeable individuals invest in more sophisticated assets, suggesting that they can expect to earn higher returns on their retirement savings accounts.” Thus, better financial literacy can help people avoid credit card debt, take advantage of refinancing opportunities, optimize Social Security benefits, avoid predatory lenders, avoid financial scams and those pushing poor investments, and plan and save for retirement.

Even if you got all three questions correct, you can probably improve your financial condition and ultimate performance by continuing to learn. Many of the most successful investors are known to be voracious readers, eager to keep learning even more.

MONEY money makeover

How to Save More While Earning Less

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Leah Overstreet "Lately we're living from paycheck to paycheck," says Lonnie Roberts Jr. (right).

It sounds like a tall order, but these 4 fixes put one maxed-out family on the way to a more secure financial future—and they can help you, too.

As a navigation officer on boats carrying supplies to oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, Lonnie Roberts Jr. is experiencing the downside of falling fuel prices. As oil companies look to preserve profit margins, Lonnie’s employer cut back his pay 9% and eliminated the 4% match on his 401(k) in January.

Even before that, Lonnie, 47, and wife Shawn, 45, felt behind on retirement. Now the Cedar Park, Texas, couple are especially anxious, knowing they need to find a way to live on less while building up their $245,000 nest egg.

With Lonnie on a boat for weeks at a time, Shawn gave up her job as an aesthetician to be home with Adison, 13, and Aiden, 11. So the family lives on Lonnie’s now $127,000 salary, 7% of which goes into his 401(k) and 7% to buying company stock. After expenses, they don’t have much left over, and their credit card balances have grown to $9,700. Something has to give. “To retire in 20 years,” says Lonnie, “we know we need to make the right moves now.”

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Here are four fixes that can help get them on the right track:

Free up cash. Chase Mouchet and Bryan Lee of Strategic Financial Planning of Plano, Texas, say the Robertses can trim $1,300 a month by eliminating impulse buys, putting off college savings, and being more economical. Also, Lonnie should sell his $3,700 in company stock, but keep buying at a 15% discount and selling right away (triggering almost no taxes) to generate $1,300 a year. Directing all this to the credit card, they should pay it off in five months.

Build in a cushion. Next priority: an emergency fund of five to seven months’ expenses. Shawn is considering returning to work part-time. If she does, the added income ($1,600 a month after tax) would help them hit the goal in another eight months.

Return to retirement. Lonnie and Shawn can then max out his 401(k) and two Roth IRAs. Mouchet and Lee also advise putting $500 a month in taxable investments. (College savings will have to wait until their pay rises.)

Boost returns. The Robertses have 80% of their nest egg in a variable annuity that’s grown just 2% total in 10 years, partly due to fees of 3% a year. Instead, the planners suggest transferring the money to a new IRA invested in low-cost index funds, with 70% in stocks, 20% in bonds, 10% in real estate. In sum, these steps should allow Shawn and Lonnie to retire at 65 and 67. Says Shawn, “It’s a relief to know we can do this.”

 

TIME Retirement

How to Tell If You’re Financially Ready to Retire

If you have socked away money in a 401(k) and your 60th birthday is behind you, chances are you are thinking about when to retire.

Chances are, too, that you are planning to retire sooner rather than later. The average retirement age seems to have stabilized at 62 for women and 64 for men, according to new research from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. But retiring too young can be very harmful to your financial health, the study found, and older workers would do well to hang in a bit longer.

Continuing to work reduces the amount of time when people need to live on their savings …

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

MONEY

Keeping Calm When the Market Goes South

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iStock

A financial adviser shares tips for easing anxiety in a rollercoaster market.

“It’s been too good for too long,” my client said.

She had every right to feel suspicious. With the markets appearing to be at an all-time high, she was justified in having that waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop instinct. I understood her desire to tread cautiously.

The majority of baby boomers are at a crossroad in their lives: They want to retire, they should retire, and it’s time to retire. But they are extremely nervous nowadays about the markets’ record-breaking levels.

Over my many years of experience working with clients in this situation — they’re ready to retire, but they can’t quite pull the trigger — I’ve seen how scary it can be to make that potentially irrevocable decision. What if markets go down? Should they have waited? What if this, what if that?

It is human nature to question ourselves at times like these, but then again, times are always a bit uncertain.

I have found that the most important step in keeping clients calm in a volatile market is to have an investment education meeting regarding their risk level and market volatility at the start of our working relationship and routinely thereafter. Our clients are actively involved in assessing their own risk tolerance and choosing a portfolio objective that suits their long-term goals.

We also want to set the right expectation of our management so our clients know that we never sell out of the market just because things are starting to go bad. Market timing has not proven to be a successful growth strategy, which is why we work with our clients upfront to establish a portfolio and game plan they can live with.

Unfortunately, the inevitable will happen: The markets will go south, and clients will panic. How can financial planners ease clients’ anxiety? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Discuss defensive tactics. Show clients the dollar amounts they have in bonds and other fixed income. Translate that into the number of years’ worth of personal spending that is not in the stock market. Have an honest conversation about if that number will be enough over the long-term.
  • Leave emotion out of it. Talk to them about the danger of selling at the wrong time and illustrate how emotional decisions tend to do more harm than good. Remind them of how quickly markets can turn around after a big drop. It’s been known to happen on more than one occasion, so share your knowledge of these experiences. Let them know that you don’t want them to miss the upside.
  • Look at the positives. Reinvesting dividends and capital gains? Are clients making monthly contributions to a 401(k) or other investment accounts? Remind your clients that when markets are down they are buying at lower prices, which can work well for their strategy over the longer term. A down market also often makes investing easier and less frightening to buy, so that might be the time to purchase any equities they once worried were too expensive.

The markets will always have some level of volatility. As an adviser providing regular guidance and support, you want to do everything you can to help clients not overreact to the daily news, hard as it might be. Urge them to continue to think long-term. It may not always be easy to see, but today’s bad news may just be a client’s big buy opportunity, and they won’t want to miss that!

———-

Marilyn Plum, CFP, is director of portfolio management and co-owner of Ballou Plum Wealth Advisors, a registered investment adviser in Lafayette, Calif. She is also a registered representative with LPL Financial. With over 30 years of experience in the financial advisory business, Plum is well-known for financial planning expertise and client education on wealth preservation, retirement, and portfolio management.

MONEY Savings

5 Signs You Will Become a Millionaire

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Martin Barraud—Getty Images

A million isn't what it used to be. But it's not bad, and here's how you get there.

A million bucks isn’t what it used to be. When your father, or maybe you, set that savings goal in 1980 it was like shooting for $3 million today. Still, millionaire status is nothing to sniff at—and new research suggests that a broad swath of millennials and Gen-Xers are on the right track.

The “emerging affluent” class, as defined in the latest Fidelity Millionaire Outlook study, has many of the same habits and traits as today’s millionaires and multimillionaires. You are in this class if you are 21 to 49 years of age with at least $100,000 of annual household income and $50,000 to $250,000 in investable assets. Fidelity found this group has five key points in common with today’s millionaires:

  • Lucrative career: The emerging affluent are largely pursuing careers in information technology, finance and accounting—much like many of today’s millionaires did years ago. They may be at a low level now, but they have time to climb the corporate ladder.
  • High income: The median household income of this emerging class is $125,000, more than double the median U.S. household income. That suggests they have more room to save now and are on track to earn and save even more.
  • Self-starters: Eight in 10 among the emerging affluent have built assets on their own, or added to those they inherited, which is also true of millionaires and multimillionaires.
  • Long-term focus: Three in four among the emerging affluent have a long-term approach to investments. Like the more established wealthy, this group stays with its investment regimen through all markets rather than try to time the market for short-term gains.
  • Appropriate aggressiveness: Similar to multimillionaires, the emerging affluent display a willingness to invest in riskier, high-growth assets for superior long-term returns.

Becoming a millionaire shouldn’t be difficult for millennials. All it takes is discipline and an early start. If you begin with $10,000 at age 25 and save $5,500 a year in an IRA that grows 6% a year, you will have $1 million at age 65. If you save in a 401(k) plan that matches half your contributions, you’ll amass nearly $1.5 million. That’s with no inheritance or other savings. Such sums may sound big to a young adult making little money. But if they save just $3,000 a year for seven years and then boost it to $7,500 a year, they will reach $1 million by age 65.

An emerging affluent who already has up to $250,000 and a big income can do this without breaking a sweat. They should be shooting far higher—to at least $3 million by 2050, just to keep pace with what $1 million buys today (assuming 3% annual inflation). But they will need $6 million in 2050 to have the purchasing power of $1 million back in 1980, when your father could rightly claim that a million dollars would make him rich.

Read next: What’s Your Best Path to $1 Million?

TIME

This Is How Long It Will Be Before You Can Retire

Stop working at 55? Fat chance

First, the good news: After creeping up incrementally since the 1980s, the average retirement age seems to have leveled off — at least, for men. The bad news: It’s probably later than you want to hear, and women’s average retirement age will probably continue to rise.

New research from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College says that, as of 2013, the average retirement age for men was 64, and roughly 62 for women.

Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research and author of the new study, says financial incentives to delay drawing Social Security, the shift from pensions to 401(k)s and the unavailability of Medicare until the age of 65 all are part of the reason behind the increase.

The recession and its aftermath yielded two more counterbalancing trends: Many older Americans delayed retirement after their 401(k)s shrunk, but others who were laid off had a hard time reentering the workforce.

This isn’t the situation any longer, Munnell says. “By 2015, the cyclical effects have worn off,” she says. “The impact of the various factors that contributed towards working longer… largely have played themselves out,” she says.

At least, this is the case for men. “Male labor force participation has leveled off and, consequently, so has the average retirement age,” Munnell says.

Things are a little different for working women, whose historical retirement trends vary from men’s because women didn’t start entering the workforce in large numbers until the second half of the 20th century.

“Women’s [labor force] participation seems to have increased,” Munnell says. “This upward shift in the curves is reflected in the recent upward trend in the average retirement age.”

And this trajectory towards a later retirement is likely to continue, at least for a while, she says. “I think that it will continue to increase until it becomes very close to the average for men.”

But aside from the chance to earn a bigger Social Security benefit and shore up your nest egg, Munnell says there are advantages to the economy if more people keep working longer, calling this an “unambiguously positive” trend.

“The more people who are working, the bigger the GDP pie and the more output available for both workers and retirees,” she says.

MONEY The Economy

Americans Don’t Want to Climb the Income Ladder — Just Hold On to It

Americans' financial confidence is at its best in years, according to researchers, but people are lowering their expectations nonetheless.

MONEY Ask the Expert

When Investment Growth, Income, and Safety Are All Priorities

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’m 64 and retired. My wife is 54 and still working, but I’m asking her to join me in retirement. We have about $1 million in savings, with about half in an IRA and the rest in CDs. How can try I try to preserve the principal, generate about $2,000 in monthly income until I collect Social Security at age 70, and somehow double my investment? — Rajen in Iowa

A: The first thing you need to ask yourself is what’s really more important: Growth, income, or safety? You say you want to preserve your principal – and your large cash position suggests that you are risk averse – but you also say you want to double your investment.

“Why do you need to double your investment?” asks Larry Rosenthal, a certified financial planner and president of Rosenthal Wealth Management Group in Manassas, VA. “Everybody likes the idea of doubling their investment, but there’s a high cost if it doesn’t work out.”

Given that you’re already retired, doubling your investment is a tall order. You probably don’t have that kind of time. At a 5% annual return, it would take you more than 14 years, and that’s without tapping your funds for income along the way. Nor can you afford to take on too much additional risk.

Either way, you do need to rethink how you have your assets allocated.

A 50% cash position is likely far too much, especially with interest rates as low as they are. “You’re effectively earning a negative return,” factoring in inflation, says Rosenthal.

And while cash is a great buffer for down markets, the value is lost in the extreme: The portion of your portfolio that is invested in longer-term assets such as stocks and bonds needs to do double duty to earn the same overall return.

If generating growth and income are both priorities, “look at shifting some of that cash into dividend paying stocks, a bond ladder, an annuity, or possibly a combination of the three,” says Rosenthal, who gives the critical caveat that the decision of how to invest some of this cash will depend on how your IRA money is invested.

Meanwhile, you should take a closer look at the pros and cons of claiming Social Security at full retirement age, which is 66 in your case, or waiting until you’re 70 years old.

The current conventional wisdom is to hold off taking Social Security as long as possible in order to maximize the monthly benefit. While that advice still holds true for many people, you need to look at the specifics of your situation – as well as that of your wife. The best way to know is to run the numbers, which you can do at Social Security Timing or AARP.

The tradeoff of waiting to claim your benefit, says Rosenthal, is spending down more of your savings for six years. You may in fact do better by keeping that money invested.

What’s more, “if you die, you can pass along your savings,” adds Rosenthal. But you don’t have that type of flexibility with Social Security benefits.

MONEY Debt

The Hidden Threat to Your Retirement

More older Americans are approaching their golden years with heavy debt loads.

When Wanda Simpson reached retirement a couple of years ago, the Cleveland mom had an unwelcome companion: Around $25,000 in debt.

Despite a longtime job as a municipal administrator, Simpson wrestled with a combination of a second mortgage and credit-card bills that she racked up thanks to health problems and a generous tendency to help out family members.

“I was very worried, and there were a lot of sleepless nights,” remembers Simpson, 68. “I didn’t want to be a burden on my children, or pass away and leave a lot of debt behind.”

New data reveal that Wanda Simpson has company—and plenty of it.

Indeed, the percentage of older Americans carrying debt has increased markedly in the past couple of decades. Among families headed by those 55 or older, 65.4% are still carrying debt loads, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI). That is up more than 10 percentage points from 1992, when only 53.8% of such families grappled with debt.

“It’s a two-fold story of higher prevalence of debt, and an uptick in those with a very high level of debt,” says Craig Copeland, EBRI’s senior research associate. “Some people are in real trouble.”

To wit, 9.2% of families headed by older Americans are forking over at least 40% of their income to debt payments. That, too, is up, from 8.5% three years earlier.

The only bright spot in the data? The average debt balance of families headed by those over 55 has actually decreased since 2010, according to EBRI, from $80,564 to $73,211 in 2013.

Still sound high? It is especially so for those heading into reduced earning years, or retiring completely.

The primary culprit, according to Copeland: rising home prices and the longer-term mortgages that result, often leaving seniors with a monthly nut well into their golden years.

Seniors are even dealing with lingering student debt: 706,000 senior households grappled with a record $18.2 billion in student loans in 2013, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

It’s not an easy subject to discuss, since older Americans may be ashamed that they are still dealing with debt after so many years in the workforce. They do not want to feel like a burden on their kids or grandkids, and so keep their financial struggles to themselves.

But financial experts stress that not all debt is automatically bad. A reasonable mortgage locked in at current low rates, in a home where you plan to stay for a long period, can be a very intelligent inflation hedge.

“I always suggest clients consolidate it in the form of good debt, like a mortgage on your primary residence,” says Stephen Doucette, a planner with Proctor Financial in Sherborn, Massachusetts. “You are borrowing against an appreciating asset, you don’t have to worry about inflation increasing the payment, and the interest is deductible.

As long as this debt is a small portion of your net worth, it is okay to play a little arbitrage, especially considering stock market risk, where a sudden decline could leave older investors very vulnerable.

“A retiree who has debt and a retirement account with equity exposure may not have the staying power he or she thinks. The debt is a fixed amount; the retirement account is variable,” says David Haraway, a planner with LPL Financial in Colorado Springs, Colo.

It is important not to halt 401(k) contributions, or drain all other sources of funds, just because you desire to be totally debt-free. Planner Scot Hansen of Shoreview, Minn. has witnessed clients do this, and ironically their good intentions end up damaging years of careful planning.

“But this distribution only created more income to be reported, and more taxes to be paid. Plus it depleted their retirement funding source.” he says.

Instead, take a measured approach. That’s what Wanda Simpson did, slowly chipping away at her debt with the help of the firm Consolidated Credit, while living off her Social Security and pension checks.

The result: She just sent off her final payment.

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